Journalist Ahmad Jabari as pictured on September 19, 2021 after crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan with his family; they are now in Germany. (Photo: Ahmad Jabari)

A jar of soil, a laptop, a handmade black coat: What Afghan journalists took into exile

In the frantic minutes before Naweeda Qayoumi fled her home in Afghanistan last September, she grabbed an empty plastic Vaseline jar and stepped into the garden to scoop a bit of soil from her homeland. She jammed the jar into the backpack she was taking into her unknown future with her husband, journalist Ghazanfar Hassanzada. Soon after, they were nervously moving through Kabul Airport, leaving behind the only life they’d ever known.

At the time, hundreds of Afghan journalists were making similar last-second decisions to flee in the wake of the Taliban takeover last August. A generation of journalists raised to believe that Afghanistan’s best days lay ahead, that their roles as watchdogs would help shape a freer future, quickly had to come to grips with the fact that their profession now might put them in danger. Many decided to run, and the Committee to Protect Journalists — which helped evacuate dozens of reporters — advised them to bring one small bag to facilitate their passage.  

Just one bag. Amid the basics, many journalists made room for one or two non-essential, but wonderfully important things – like a jar of dirt — to remind them of their country, their family, or to ease their path ahead. These objects had to be small, to ensure that the Taliban would overlook them as they searched the bags of people leaving the country. CPJ spoke with five Afghan journalists about what they brought with them as they settled into their new countries.

CPJ contacted Taliban deputy spokesperson Ahmadullah Wasiq via messaging app for comment on the threats the journalists described but did not receive a reply.

Ghazanfar Hassanzada: a jar of soil

Ghazanfar Hassanzada says the soil is a reminder of home. (Photo: Ghazanfar Hassanzada)

“The soil was her idea,” journalist Ghazanfar Hassanzada said of his wife Naweeda Qayoumi. “I am glad she brought it so we can have it and can smell our homeland.”

The couple felt they had to leave because of Hassanzada’s work as a reporter for Radio Maiwand. Despite the fact that it was privately funded, he said the Taliban was convinced he was part of an effort to “Westernize” Afghanistan.  

“My team and I were mainly producing hard news from northern Afghanistan,” he said. “The Taliban in Kunduz and some local Taliban supporters didn’t like our reporting. Our news, they said, defamed the Taliban for no reason. When Taliban seized the city, local Taliban reported me [to them].”

In September 2021, CPJ helped Hassanzada and his wife flee to safety in Pakistan and in January they arrived in Canada, where they had been approved for relocation.

“I will be honest, it is not the only thing we brought,” said Hassanzada of the soil. “I carried the hand-sewn shirt I wore for our wedding with me, and I like to look at it and remember happier times. But with the soil, we can sense a closeness to our homeland. It is a piece of Afghanistan that we will keep with us.”

Ahmad Jabari: his wife’s medical school certificates

Samira Jabari hopes this certificate from Afghanistan’s ministry of public health will ease her ability to find work in the medical field in Germany. (Photo: Ahmad Jabari; this image has been edited to remove personal details) 

In his final moments at home in Afghanistan last September, Ahmad Jabari made digital copies of his wife’s medical school records.

“She is a doctor and she was leading a private hospital too, with another doctor who was the owner of the hospital. She is a gynecologist, a specialist,” Jabari said of his wife, Samira Jabari. “If we didn’t bring it, my wife would be nothing here. So it is important.”

In Afghanistan, Jabari had worked at the German-run Bayan Media Center’s television network, among other German outlets, reporting extensively on the Taliban’s alleged killing of children, teachers, and pregnant women, as well as its destruction of antiquities, he said.

In the spring of 2019, Jabari said he received death threats from someone claiming to be with the Taliban. Weeks later, unidentified assailants shot at his car from another vehicle; the bullets meant for his head were deflected by a toolbox in the back. After that, he received more phone calls from people claiming to be with the Taliban, telling him they wouldn’t miss next time.

The couple made the hard decision to leave with their two children after the Taliban briefly arrested Jabari’s father and ordered him to turn over his son. The family has now resettled in western Germany. Jabari says that they are hopeful that his wife will again work as a doctor, especially as small towns in Germany are in need of qualified doctors.

Naveed Pasoon says his education certificates remind him of his father’s hopes for his children. (Photo: Naveed Pasoon; this image has been edited to remove personal details)

Journalist Naveed Pasoon took his educational documents with him, including his bachelor’s degree certificate from Kabul University, when he fled Afghanistan for Pakistan, eventually settling in Germany last fall. These weren’t just pieces of paper, he told CPJ, but representations of his father’s dream. “It was the greatest desire of my father to see me and my sister educated,” he said.

As a child, Pasoon’s family immigrated to Pakistan during the first period of Taliban rule in the 1990s, during which Pasoon’s father, a “highly educated military officer” sold purses on the street, doing “tough and shitty jobs” in order to keep his children in school.

After the Taliban fell in 2001, Pasoon’s family returned to Afghanistan where he finished his higher education, as his father wanted. But in fall 2020, tragedy struck. His father was killed in a roadside bomb as he was driving Pasoon’s car. Pasoon’s brother-in-law died in the same explosion, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Pasoon’s sister. 

Pasoon believes that the bomb was meant for him as payback for helping foreign reporters and for his own reporting about the Taliban’s alleged violence and corruption for the online journalism platform Paiwandgah.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan again, he started receiving messages and phone calls from people who said they were Taliban members, mockingly noting that they intended to pay respects to his father.

He said he was determined to take his proof of education out of the country with him — at any cost. “Taking them with me was not free of dangers—as at every checkpoint of the Taliban it was possible that they would search for such documents. I had decided that even if I get killed I would not let my educational documents get destroyed or lost. My identity, my hard work over the years, and the hopes and expectations of my late father are all in these documents.”

Today, in exile, looking at the documents “gives me a feeling of glory and pride and reminds me that I was a responsible person for my family and my country.”

Bushra Seddique: laptop computer

Bushra Seddique photographed her laptop along with the outfit she wore the day she fled Afghanistan. (Photo: Bushra Seddique)

Bushra Seddique brought her laptop with her when she left Afghanistan. “My whole life is my laptop. My work drafts, my reports, my pictures, my family. Everything is on my laptop,” she told CPJ.

Seddique, 22, was a journalist for the Arman-e-milli newspaper in Kabul and reported part time for various media and newspapers in Afghanistan. She fled the country with her 16-year-old sister; her 33-year-old brother traveled separately but was able to join her in the U.S. Her mother, father, and another sister remain in Kabul.

“When we were first outside of the airport, me and my sister both wore long black dresses and covered our faces and hands with scarves because the Taliban were not allowing women to be uncovered,” said Seddique. “Then when we passed the Taliban gates and we got inside the airport, at the U.S. military gate, we just took the black long dresses off.”

Seddique’s journey took her from Qatar, to Germany, to a U.S. military camp in Indiana. She is now awaiting resettlement while living in a hotel in Maryland.

She took a photo of her laptop and of the outfit she wore under the black dress the day she left Afghanistan: jeans, a white shirt with dark stripes, and a yellow jacket. The photo also shows two other prized possessions she managed to bring: a photo of her father and a gold watch which no longer keeps time. 

“My gold watch is my sister’s watch. She brought it to me,” Seddique said. “It’s not working and the battery is shut off, but I love it.”

Ogai Wardak: a handmade coat

Ogai Wardak kept a black coat her mother made by hand. (Photo: Ogai Wardak)

The background of Ogai Wardak’s laptop is a photo of the journalist hugging her mother tightly and planting a kiss on her cheek. “My mum is my life, and my life is everything for me,” she told CPJ. That’s why Wardak couldn’t part with the coat her mother made her by hand.

Wardak, 21, worked as a journalist for Zan TV, the groundbreaking news channel covering, and staffed by, women. Among other beats, Ogai covered sports. She fled Afghanistan in August 2021, and after an initial stop in Doha, Qatar, resettled in Dublin, Ireland.

The coat made by Wardak’s mother, who is still in Afghanistan, is long, black, and embellished with coins which Wardak lovingly showed off in a video sent to CPJ. When she learned she could only take one small bag with her, Wardak said she was shocked.

“What should I take with myself? Mum said to take important documents. [On my] personal laptop, I collect all my personal memories, I have pictures, my memories, my mum’s memories,” she said.

However, the long black coat, hanging up in her new home, “is the only thing that I have with myself now from my mother.”

Additional reporting by CPJ Emergencies Director Lucy Westcott